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Immigration is a dicey issue for 2020 Democrats as they seek Latino vote

"With Democrats the question is how committed are they to reversing this nonstop buildup of detention, deportation funding and practices," and trying to appeal to different voters.
Image: Students and supporters of DACA rally in Los Angeles
Students and supporters of DACA rally in Los Angeles on Nov. 12, 2019Frederic J. Brown / AFP - Getty Images

Despite large majorities of Democrats and Latinos who support the liberalization of immigration laws, the party’s 2020 presidential candidates are finding it’s still a dicey issue on the campaign trail.

The topic of immigration has the potential to rally or dampen efforts to turn out the growing Latino electorate, a group that showed its potential in the 2018 midterms and is critical to winning up and down the ballot in several key states.

In this election cycle, candidates are being pushed by younger progressive Latinos who are demanding more than just a promise of a pathway to citizenship for "Dreamers" or an immigration reform bill in the first 100 days — instead calling for a stop to deportations.

Democrats are wrestling with trying to appeal to its growing progressive base while not losing more centrist and rural voters — which also includes Latino voters.

Joe Biden, the former vice president, has found himself subject to protests over the record deportations carried out by the Obama administration.

Most recently, those protests so agitated Biden that he admonished an activist who was pressing him to declare a stop on deportations. “You should vote for Trump,” Biden told the activist.

Before that eruption, a top Latina staffer on Biden’s campaign, Vanessa Cardenas, who was his national coalitions director, had quit. Two unnamed friends told Politico she was frustrated that the campaign was not heeding her advice on immigration. Cardenas did not return phone messages and texts from NBC News requesting comment.

Matt Baretto, co-founder of Latino Decisions, a Democratic polling firm, said that many Latino voters are looking at Democratic candidates and asking for bold action on immigration.

That's why Julián Castro's promise to decriminalize crossing the border, changing it from criminal violations — a misdemeanor on the first attempt and felony on repeated attempts — to civil, has been well received, Baretto said.

In a poll for Univision after the Miami Democratic debate, Latino Decisions found Latino voters heavily supported Castro’s proposal.

"Most of the proposals coming from Democrats really go back to the Obama administration's second term, where they had the discretion to say (to Immigration and Customs Enforcement) only focus in on the criminals and leave everyone else alone," Baretto said. "That's where the community is on this."

A Latino Decisions poll in 2012 showed a majority of Latino voters were upset about the record deportations that were happening under the Obama administration. Before that year's midterm elections, former President Barack Obama became the subject of protests organized by former allies, young Latinos who had been part of his winning coalition in 2008.

Facing criticism that she wasn't calling out Obama enough on the deportations, Janet Murguía, president of UnidosUS, formerly the National Council of La Raza, called Obama "deporter in chief" in a speech at its annual gala. That moniker stuck and became fodder for political opponents who held it up as evidence that Obama and Democrats were taking Latino voters for granted.

Obama turned things around by authorizing the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, which gave younger immigrants temporary, renewable protection from deportation and permission to work. Studies show the program has bolstered the nation's workforce and contributed billions to the national economy.

While that helped Obama win re-election in 2012, the 27 percent Latino turnout rate in the 2014 midterms was a record low, according to Pew Research Center. Several days after the 2014 election, Obama used executive action to issue a new policy that resulted in fewer deportations and created a program similar to DACA for parents of U.S. citizen and legal resident children.

Those policies took a sharp turn in the past four years. President Donald Trump has implemented hardline immigration policies including severely restricted immigration, increased deportations, an attempt to end DACA, the separation of children, including babies, from parents at the border, and much tougher restrictions on seeking asylum in the U.S. and immigrating legally.

The current state of things makes it harder to propose a return to Obama's policies, according to Carlos Rojas, an organizer with Movimiento Cosecha.

Rojas is the activist who pressed Biden to denounce the Obama deportations and promise to declare a moratorium to deportations.

Biden has mostly focused on talking about his support for DACA and his role in the administration to make it happen, Barreto said.

“But the problem is the Latino population is very young and the vote is young and he needs to be able to message to younger, active voters," Barreto said.

In the 2016 election, Latino voters' support in the primaries for Hillary Clinton or Bernie Sanders broke primarily along generational lines.

According to recent polls, Democrats have to work harder for the young Latino vote.

While 53 percent of Latinos aged 50 and above said they were definitely voting for the Democratic candidate, only 37 percent of Latinos 18-29 said they would definitely vote for a Democratic candidate, according to a national Latino Decisions poll conducted for UnidosUS.

Pushing for more liberal policies

Rojas said he wants to hear candidates say they have a deep understanding of what the immigrant community has gone through and is going through.

Placing a full moratorium on all deportations on Day 1 “is a starting point for us,” Rojas said. To him, that means a detained undocumented immigrant won’t have to fear being deported and those in deportation would have that process canceled and they would be allowed to stay in the country without fear of deportation.

Rojas rejects the suggestions that deportations can continue for people who have committed a felony or a crime. That approach continues the criminalization of immigrants and plays into Trump’s rhetoric, he said.

“We have a sitting president who launched a campaign saying Mexicans are rapists, drug dealers or criminals, so we cannot have an immigration plan that assumes all immigrants are criminals” he said.

As for immigrants convicted of serious crimes, we already have a criminal justice system … that can deal with that,” Rojas said.

Rojas' group formed four years ago by immigrants who had worked on issues for younger immigrants. Seeing what younger immigrants had been able to accomplish politically, "we wanted to recreate that for older immigrants." At the state level, the group is focused on getting driver's licenses for immigrants in several states and at the national level, "we want to be sure the Democratic candidates' immigration platforms and rhetoric speaks to the pain of the community and addresses the immigration crisis we are seeing."

Latinos aren't "one-size-fits-all" on immigration

Declaring a moratorium could be seen as espousing "open borders" and playing into rhetoric that Democrats don't care about preventing future threats.

In a Gallup immigration tracking poll, 42 percent of those polled said immigrants are making the crime situation in the country worse, while 50 percent they are not having much effect.

Albert Morales, senior political director at Latino Decisions, said while a moratorium on deportations may work in some parts of the country, in a state such as Texas, which is a battleground state, that message may not work throughout the state, even in areas that are heavily Latino.

"That's where it gets real complicated," Morales said. "Not all Latinos are as progressive or liberal on these issues."

A number of Latinos have what are considered good-paying jobs with Customs and Border Patrol and Immigration and Customs Enforcement that also make progressive ideas such as breaking up ICE difficult to push in border areas of Texas with high poverty, he said. The Department of Homeland Security has been the top employer of Latinos in the federal government.

Morales said that why Rep. Henry Cuellar, a Democrat whose Texas district includes Laredo on the border "doesn't shy away from posing with Border Patrol agents who are his constituents."

"They are often union members, so it's a complicated issue. It's not a one-size-fits-all," he said.

Reframing the narrative?

Trump's policies have "wreaked havoc" across Latino and immigrant communities, said Morales, and that can backfire with voters who reject those kinds of measures.

But it's still a more complicated issue for the Democratic Party to hash out, according to Frank Sharry, executive director of America’s Voice, an immigration reform advocacy group.

"People know that Trump is going to terrorize immigrants and try to kick them out and keep them out, but with Democrats the question is how committed are they to reversing this nonstop buildup of detention, deportation funding and practices," he said.

Before leading America's Voice, Sharry worked for years on negotiating and trying to get Congress to pass immigration reform legislation.

"Biden is resisting the progressive position by saying, 'No, we are going to deport people but we are going to prioritize,'" Sharry said. "So Biden has staked out a moderate position and Bernie Sanders and Castro have staked out more progressive positions."

In his recently released immigration platform, Sanders called for a moratorium on deportations until an audit on immigration policies and practices can be done. Elizabeth Warren said in a recent forum with Mijente, a Latinx advocacy group, that she is open to suspending deportations while Congress works out immigration legislation.

Castro, during an October visit to a Columbus, Ohio, church where a woman has been in sanctuary to avoid deportation, told Movimiento Cosecha that he supports deporting only people who have committed serious crimes.

José Parra, founder of the consulting firm Próspero Latino and a former Democratic Senate aide, believes Democrats have to stop letting Trump set the framework on immigration and discussing it from a conservative standpoint.

“The problem that you get is statistically speaking we know that immigrants tend to behave better than the rest of the population, so why you are arguing 'I’ll be deporting criminals'? You are simply playing by the rules they set,” Parra said of Republicans. “You are automatically equating immigration with higher criminality," and ceding the message war, he said.

There are an estimated 10.5 million people in the country illegally and an estimated 13.7 million legal residents. Various studies have shown lower crime rates among immigrants than the citizen population.

Of the 50,000 people held in detention nationally by Immigration and Customs Enforcement on April 30 this year, 64 percent had no criminal record or conviction, according to a report by Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse, a data research organization at Syracuse University. That up from 10,000 in 2015.

TRAC’s data shows that the ICE’s detention growth in the last four years has been driven by a steady increase in detainees with no criminal history.

In addition, many of the convictions are for “crimes” that are nonviolent, such as traffic citations and immigration violations and many who are labeled criminal served out sentences years and decades before their detention, TRAC stated in its report.

Clarissa Martínez-de-Castro, a deputy vice president at UnidosUS, said people are getting caught up in a false dichotomy on immigration of either restoring the rule of law or having fairness. “That’s not the case,” she said.

Sharry, who spent years lobbying Congress on comprehensive immigration reform legislation, said even if Democrats win the White House and Senate, getting immigration legislation through Congress is going to be difficult because of the potential for filibuster.

That's why who occupies the executive branch is so crucial.

“If you are president, you are going to have more power than anyone else to reverse this trend of ramped up enforcement and deportation and that’s what activists are putting pressure on the candidates to do,” Sharry said.

“After all the pain and suffering Trump has inflicted, you definitely need a reset,” Parra said.

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